Monday 12 October 2015

Lithe and vibrant: a Hollywood Tales of Hoffmann revealing its good bones

Ilona Domnich as Stella - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich as Stella - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Offenbach The Tales of Hoffmann; Sam Furness, Ilona Domnich, Warwick Fyfe, Louise Mott,
dir: James Bonas, cond: Philip Sunderland
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 10 2015
Star rating: 4.5

An intelligent edition, imaginative setting and vibrant performances bring Offenbach's Opera fantastique to life

Sam Furness - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Sam Furness
© Richard Hubert Smith
For the final opera in their French season which they are touring this Autumn, English Touring Opera turned to Offenbach's unfinished grand opera The Tales of Hoffmann. We caught the performance at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre on 10 October 2015. Directed by James Bonas, designed by Oliver Townsend, with lighting by Mark Howland, choreography by Ewan Jones and video by Zakk Heinn, Philip Sunderland conducted Stephen Anthony Brown's orchestra reduction and the opera was performed in Jeff Clarke's English version. Sam Furness was Hoffmann, Ilona Domnich the four heroines, Warwick Fyfe the four villains and Louise Mott the Muse/Nicklausse, with Matt RJ Ward, Tim Dawkins, Adam Tunnicliffe and Ashley Mercer.

The problem with The Tales of Hoffmann is that it needs a good editor. Offenbach typically wrote far too much material and then re-shaped it into a satisfactory form, during rehearsals. As he died during the rehearsals for the premier this process never happened with The Tales of Hoffmann, and though we now have scholarly editions of all the surviving material (including the conclusion to the Giulietta act which was long thought missing), this does not completely solve the problem. Too often, opera companies simply opt for an edition and perform it complete (or near complete), whether it is the old Choudens edition with the Guiraud recitatives, or one of the modern re-constructions and editions. The worst of this genre was the Fritz Oeser edition which brought in lots of music from Offenbach's Die Rheinnixen to fill in the gaps. In the the theatre, the opera is simply far too long for its material.

Louise Mott, Sam Furness & ensemble - Prologue: Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Louise Mott, Sam Furness & ensemble - Prologue
© Richard Hubert Smith
Thankfully, the version used by English Touring Opera applied creativity and intelligence to the creation of something suitable for touring. It lasted 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval, which was about right. Using a translation by Jeff Clarke, the version used in fact was based on the one Clarke created for his Opera Della Luna company which performed it at Iford Arts.

Lacking a separate chorus (the ensemble of soloists sang the chorus parts), the choruses had been trimmed down. This had a beneficial effect on the prologue where the choruses of students do tend to bog the piece down, and a similar transformation took place in the Olympia act, to equally strong effect. We got a relatively full, and interesting version of everything else. Arias for the muse in both the prologue and epilogue, and a number of solos for Niklausse elsewhere, in Olympia instead of the spurious J'ai des yeux we got the trio which Offenbach wrote for this point in the piece, something I have not heard in the theatre for a long time. In the Giulietta act there was no Scintille Diamant and no Septet, instead Dapertutto sang his correct aria (the original of J'ai des yeux) and the ending was heavily indebted to Richard Bonynge's creative solution for his famous recording with Joan Sutherland. As I have said, the Muse got her aria in the epilogue, and this was indeed presented with quite a full version of the text.

Warwick Fyfe - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Warwick Fyfe - © Richard Hubert Smith
The result was to concentrate on the drama, rather than the grand opera inflation of the piece, and the whole had an admirably lean and almost stripped down quality which linked the music back to Offenbach's  chunkier operettas and even, dare I say, to G&S. Spoken dialogue was used, as well as recitative, which worked well.

Bonas and Townsend set the opera in the context of the end of the silent movie era, with Hoffmann watching his past hits with friends instead of going to the premiere of the new film starring Stella. At the end, in the epilogue, the film screen was ripped enabling Stella and the Muse to appear out of the screen. In between the various acts made references to film, and I have to admit to not being enough of a film buff to pick them up but it was clear that Ilona Domnich was channelling various film divas, include Dietrich, in the heroines whilst Warwick Fyfe was pure Bela Lugosi as the villains. That is worked well, was partly because of the imagination that Bonas and Townsend displayed when approaching the various problems that the libretto gave them, so that for instance in the Giulietta act a sofa doubled as a gondola, and when the music called for a larger ensemble than those on stage, various doors opened in the set and disembodied heads contributed thus adding to the wonderfully surreal atmosphere.

Sam Furness (with rose-tinted specs), Louise Mott, Adam Tunnicliffe, Matt RJ Ward - Act One: Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Sam Furness (with rose-tinted specs), Louise Mott, Adam Tunnicliffe,
Matt RJ Ward - Act One - © Richard Hubert Smith
For all of the pieces in this season, James Conway has used the fact that reduced orchestrations are being used to enable casting younger singers, closer to the ages that the characters are supposed to be. This worked well for Hoffmann, here sung to devastating effect by Sam Furness, a young tenor just making a name for himself. His roles have all been lyric, but Hoffmann requires a lot more and Furness was both impressive and engaging. With his floppy hair, he created a lovely sense of charming chancer in character, and gave the music a wonderful depth of tone. Not Italianate, but something far darker and richer than a simple English lyric tenor and he displayed a lovely sense of style when singing the music, shaping it finely (caressing almost). No, the voice did yet not have surface sheen of say Placido Domingo, or the lifetime artistry of Alfredo Kraus (both of whom I have heard in the role), but Furness brought his own freshness and appealing sense of intimacy to the part. I would worry for the health of his voice if he sang such large parts too often, but here he held the focus of the opera from beginning to end, musical and sexy to boot.

IIlona Domnich as Antonia - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
IIlona Domnich as Antonia - © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich brought an admirable technique and a clear sense of character to the four heroines. Here I suspect that the film-era references helped even if we did not always pick them up, so that Domnich gave us four clearly different women, each more an archetype than a rounded character, as they are all aspects of the one. Olympia was brilliantly staged, the doll was a clearly mechanical puppet, all light and wires, manipulated by Domnich and two other cast members, whilst Domnich sang and then for certain moments the stage flooded with the pink light from Hoffmann's rose-tinted spectacles and Domnich played the doll, showing us what he was seeing. Vocally, Domnich is a lyric soprano whose voice is developing, but she still has the notes and flexibility for Olympia.  There was sometimes a certain lack of ease in the coloratura but this worked in the context both of the drama and that she was singing all four heroines. Antonia was flutteringly appealing, with a lovely sense of style in the arias. Giulietta, channelling Dietrich I think, was sexy yet unreachable with the tessitura of the role showing no problems to Domnich. In the Epilogue, Stella looked the epitome of fur clad sophistication and sang in the ensembles.

Sam Furness & Ensemble - Act Three: Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Sam Furness & Ensemble - Act Three
© Richard Hubert Smith
Warwick Fyfe, though he has won awards for his performances of Alberich with Opera Australia, has clearly sung G&S and if he hasn't he ought to. His superb diction, strongly characterised voice and wonderful sense of timing were all apparent in his Lindorf and the villains. All played as the same villain, Fyfe was clearly channelling Bela Lugosi and having a whale of a time. The four villains are something of a challenge, as they vary in tessitura, but a lack of ease in the very top surely fitted in with the vividly grim character which Fyfe created. His was a total and integral creation, combining visual and vocal drama into a very clear sense of character.

Having these three performers ensured that we had a strongly characterised balance, with some highly vivid performing. Louise Mott could easily have been overshadowed as the Muse and Niklausse. As the Muse she brought a certain sense of style to the role, with a feeling of androgyny and as Niklausse she wasn't a young companion but a monstrous food obsessed schoolboy, a role Mott played with great glee. This worked surprisingly well, and made a great deal of sense of those moments when Niklausse is completely ineffective in the drama. Mott, singing with a lovely rich tone, was nicely fluent in the role and brought a great sense of wit to the drama. Mott also sang the role of Antonia's mother, doing it as a ventriloquial act under the control of Warwick Fyfe's Dr. Miracle.

Act One, Olympia with the doll centre stage - Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring Opera, © Richard Hubert Smith
Act One: Olympia with the doll centre stage - © Richard Hubert Smith
Surrounding these was the ensemble of Matt RJ Ward, Tim Dawkins, Adam Tunnicliffe, Ashley Mercer and Tim Dawkins. Each had solo roles, but as well they formed the core ensemble for all the opera.  Tunnicliffe made a wonderfully demented Spalanzani and a rather creepy Pitichinaccio. Matt JR Ward was wonderfully demented as Cochenille and a complete delight as Frantz, attempting to sing and dance to hilarious effect in his couplets. Tim Dawkins brought a strong personality to Antonia's father. The Giulietta act had a slightly odd atmosphere, somewhat played up by Bonas, because of course though the piece is redolent with sexual tension the ensemble had only one woman in it, so cross dressing and all sorts was the name of the game!

Whereas Pelleas et Melisande and Werther seemed somewhat reduced when ETO performed them with chamber orchestrations, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann seemed to be strengthened. The process seemed to bring out the good bones underneath the orchestral padding. The result was lithe and vibrant, and a welcome tonic after the overblown grand opera versions seen recently. It helped that the orchestra of 12 played finely and stylishly and that conductor Philip Sunderland showed immense sympathy with the music. He kept things moving, as was only right in this lithe and highly immediate version of the piece, but still with a sense of style and shapeliness. Ultimately performing Offenbach is about a sense of wit and style, and this matters as much in Tales of Hoffmann as it does in the operettas.

The opera was sung in Jeff Clarke's lively English version, adjusted to reflect the Hollywood setting without doing any great violence and I liked the way the song about the dove, in the Olympia act, was sung in French, whilst the famous Barcarolle, in the Giulietta act, was sung in Italian. All the cast sang and spoke with clear diction, ensuring we understood exactly what was going on. There were also atmospheric side titles in the style of silent films. The films which Hoffmann watch were created by Zakk Heinn, shown both on the film screen and projected across the set, and were an appealing mix of silent film images and modern sensibility.

I went in to the performance with a little trepidation, worried about what effect the reductions and transpositions of locale would make, but I came out entranced. This was a lithe and imaginative production, performed with wit and a sense of style and revealing the strong sense of drama underneath all the grand opera padding. It should win many admirers for the opera and is on tour with the rest of ETO's Autumn season until 21 November 2015.

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  1. A small correction, Nicklausse sang the ventriloquist version of Antonia's Mother's Voice under the control of Dr Miracle not Dappertutto...

    1. Well spotted, will correct!

  2. I entirely agree this was a great night out. After my lukewarm feelings about ETO's Pelléas and my gross disappointment over their Werther (on the 1st night quite a few audience members voted with their feet at the interval), I was not hopeful about Hoffmann. But how wrong I was! Warwick Fyfe in particular blew me away with his creepy Nosferatu. I'm not sure but I think the other two silent film villains referenced were Dr Mabuse and Dr Caligari. A triumph for ETO, in spite of the reduced orchestration and cuts. And how nice to have parts sung in Italian and in French - I remember seeing a production in Cologne where the prologue/epilogue and Olympia act were sung in German, the Antonia act in French and the Giulietta act in Italian.


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